Did Jew really say that?

merchant of venice

“Shylock, e.g.”

That’s the clue to 32 Down (three letters) in a crossword puzzle published yesterday and composed by Victor Barocas, a professor in the biomedical engineering department at the University of Minnesota. The answer is “Jew.” Shylock was a money lender in the Shakespeare play “Merchant of Venice,” who demands a pound of flesh from the guarantor of a loan who can’t pay.

Today, the Chicago Tribune’s customary publication of the answers to the previous day’s puzzle included an intriguing three-letter gap of blank spaces and this explanation: “…the answer to 32 Down has been blocked because it would make the combination of clue and solution an offensive stereotype.”

I, for one, was clueless about Shylock, having never read “Merchant of Venice.” Thus, I entirely missed not only the answer, but the offensive-stereotype link until the Trib’s note mentioned it. I had to Google “Shylock” to find out why the three blanked-out letters J-E-W (whose absences made the answers Sajak, oneG and byweight look like grins missing teeth) might offend anyone.

So the Trib’s note provided an educational opportunity about stereotypes and prejudice, but I wonder if blanking out the word “Jew” undermined it. By refusing to openly identify words used offensively, don’t we send a mixed message, signaling hesitation about confronting the mistaken beliefs which give those slurs power?

That hesitation can be taken as ambivalence, which signals we’re not sure of our ground.

If Paula Deen had said “N-word” instead of “nigger,” would she have sounded less prejudiced?

When is it okay to say nigger?

Paula DeenAs we all know now, Paula Deen, the doyenne of deep-fried cooking, has turned her career into toast. Blackened it, one might say, with a series of scorching admissions about her use of the word “nigger” and her proposal to throw a plantation-themed party with African Americans portraying slaves.

Amid the uproar, pundits, newscasters and bloggers routinely used the prettified phrase “N-word” when referring to the racist slur Deen slung around. The cautious resort to a euphemism isn’t the most effective teaching tool for conveying how objectionable the term is. If we’re too delicate to even say the word, how can we possibly educate the unenlightened?

Imagine trying to teach sex education using only “the I-word.”

As distasteful as Ms. Deen’s bigotry is, the rabid reactions of her defenders are downright astounding. To those who insist they “don’t understand” why Deen’s attitudes are so harmful, try this little exercise.

Imagine she was accused of disparaging fat people. She goes on TV to protest her innocence. Instead of saying (as she did) that one of her employees is black and asking him to come on out even though he might be hard to see because he’s as dark as the background of the stage set, let’s say she told him “Come on out here, if you can get through the door, and show people how fat you are.”

Or, let’s take the plantation-party plan a step further. Why didn’t it occur to Ms. Deen to suggest including some light-skinned slaves who look an awful lot like Ol’ Massa, played by her brother Bubba and some relatives with spray-on tans? And an overseer with a big whip? And a pack of baying bloodhounds?

Guess that didn’t fit into the happy slaves theme, and unhappy slaves would be no fun at all, y’all.